- With the United States withdrawing from the Middle East, ties between Turkey and Israel will strengthen as they seek new partners in the region.
- As their relationship deepens, Turkey and Israel will increase cooperation in areas of shared interest, including energy and security.
- Both countries will also work with Gulf Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, to counter Iran's rising influence.
Despite having once been allies, Turkey and Israel have been at odds with each other for nearly a decade. But their chilly relationship may be on the verge of thawing. The United States has scaled back its presence in the Middle East, and local players are vying to fill the void it has left behind. As the competition heats up, Turkey and Israel will likely find that joining forces is their best chance to achieve their strategic goals.
The Middle East looks very different today than it did at the turn of the century. The largest foreign actor in the region, the United States, is moving away from its historical role as the primary military power in Middle Eastern conflicts. Instead, its local partners are bearing the brunt of fighting while the United States provides support from afar. At the same time, Washington is being careful to ensure that no single country emerges as the dominant force in the region. To that end, the United States is attempting to strike a balance among Middle Eastern powers, limiting its support for any one country while playing those that would strive for influence against one another.
Regional Competition Intensifies
But the countries of the Middle East have their own plans. With the United States' withdrawal, three contenders have emerged seeking to replace it: Turkey, Iran and an alliance of Sunni Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia.
Iran has begun to build influence by strengthening its ties with the Middle East's predominantly Shiite states, including Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Tehran has also leveraged its clout with the region's Shiite minorities to weaken its Sunni rivals, stoking protests among Shiite communities in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
Sunni Arab states have watched Iran's moves with growing trepidation, especially as its relationship with the United States has improved. In an effort to counter their Shiite rival, Saudi Arabia and its gulf allies have sought to expand their own influence through several joint initiatives on security and economic cooperation. So far, Riyadh has agreed to give more than $3 billion to Egypt in loans and grants and $1.2 billion to Jordan from 2011 to 2016. Saudi Arabia also granted $5 billion to the Sudanese army in February 2015. Meanwhile, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates collectively promised $10 billion in aid to Egypt last March.
In some ways, Turkey's interests align with those of Saudi Arabia and its allies. During the Cold War, the United States viewed Turkey as an important ally that could counter Soviet influence in Syria, Egypt and Iraq. Though Washington will continue to rely on Ankara in the region, the importance of their relationship is waning. Coupled with the United States' recent pivot to Iran, this has left Turkey in need of other allies that aim to stop Tehran's rise. So while the Sunni Arab coalition is Turkey's rival, it is also a logical partner in certain areas. Indeed, Ankara is already working with Riyadh's anti-terrorism coalition in Syria, and Saudi aircraft are launching airstrikes in Syria from Turkish bases. Moreover, Turkey is in the process of building an air base in Qatar and is seeking to bolster its relationships with other gulf states.
Still, Turkey has its own vision for the Middle East, and it will cooperate with the Saudi-led block only to the extent that it fits with its broader goals. As Ankara searches for ways to meet its strategic objectives, rekindling ties with Israel will become an increasingly attractive option.
Reviving an Old Partnership
For years, the Israel-Turkey relationship has been rocky. In the wake of Turkey's 2007 elections and Israel's 2008-2009 war in Gaza, Ankara began lending more support to Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups throughout the Middle East. In doing so, Turkey came into direct conflict with Israeli interests, particularly in its backing of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and Palestinian organizations such as Hamas, which Israeli leaders considered to be serious threats.
After deteriorating for three years, the relationship fell apart completely in May 2010 when Israeli forces raided a Turkish-flagged vessel, the Mavi Marmara, as it tried to break Israel's blockade of Gaza. The incident left 10 Turks dead, resulting in the downgrading of diplomatic ties and the suspension of military cooperation between the two countries.
Since then, Israel has issued an official apology and has agreed to compensate the families of those killed on the flotilla. However, the Israeli blockade of Gaza continues to be a barrier to the normalization of ties. Turkey has insisted that its humanitarian aid to Gaza be allowed through; Israel maintains that doing so would be harmful to its national security.
But it appears that the standoff will not hold for much longer. Since December 2015, both sides have engaged in talks to reinstate diplomatic ties, and progress has been made toward lifting the blockade on Gaza. (Hamas recently agreed to allow Fatah's Presidential Guard to administer the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, an important condition for both Israel and Egypt to allow flows of people and goods into Gaza to resume.) In late February, several Turkish and Israeli officials announced that a deal was imminent.
Pulled Together by Common Interests
And it likely is, considering that the region's shifting realities are pushing Turkey and Israel toward reconciliation. Israel shares Turkey's pressing need for allies other than the United States, particularly given the extent to which it has relied on U.S. support in the past. Though it, too, will hedge its bets by trying to strengthen its ties with gulf states, Israel sees rapprochement with Turkey as a strategic priority for two reasons: energy and security.
In a bid to build its regional partnerships, Israel has used its substantial natural gas reserves to attract the interest of its neighbors, including Egypt and Jordan. Toward the end of 2015, Israel approved a seven-year contract to supply Egypt with 5 billion cubic meters of natural gas. It has also lined up several other export agreements with Egypt and Jordan, though none have been finalized yet.
Despite this success, it will be a long time before such deals yield tangible results for Israel, especially since the pipelines needed to deliver energy exports to Egypt and Jordan have yet to be constructed. So while Egypt and Jordan will remain at the forefront of Israel's energy strategy, it will also continue to seek other markets for its natural gas.
Turkey may be one such market. Recent political disputes with Russia, its main source of natural gas, have sent Ankara in search of other, more reliable suppliers. Like Israel, Turkey will try to pursue a number of different energy partnerships, including with Iraqi Kurdistan and Azerbaijan, to diversify its portfolio. However, Israel's Tamar and Leviathan fields, which together are estimated to hold about 700 billion cubic meters of natural gas, could be a significant addition to that portfolio.
In addition to energy, the two countries share an interest in expanding their security cooperation, particularly in Syria. Both would benefit from joint training, technology transfers and intelligence sharing as the country's civil war drags on. And cooperation between Israeli and Turkish forces is not without precedent. In fact, they had fairly strong security agreements in the 1990s and early 2000s; the Israeli air force helped Turkey modernize its equipment and shared intelligence.
This is not to say obstacles to a revival of ties between Turkey and Israel no longer exist. Israeli energy policy is complex and unclear, which will create much uncertainty for Turkey as it seeks to finalize a natural gas deal. Furthermore, problems in transporting Israeli natural gas to the Turkish market will likely arise. Meanwhile, Turkey's need to portray itself as a defender of the Palestinian cause could complicate Israel's efforts to protect its national security as the two negotiate an end to the Gaza blockade. More broadly, the regional taboo against working with Israel could constrain Turkey's ability to cooperate with Israel as it attempts to become a prominent force in the Middle East.
But each of these things will only delay the inevitable. Turkish and Israeli interests are quickly aligning, and as the region continues to adjust to a diminished U.S. presence, it will be just a matter of time before the two revive their long-dormant alliance.